Manhattan Beach
  • March 12, 2018

    Opening Round

  • Jennifer Egan

    1Manhattan Beach
    4Dear Cyborgs

    Eugene Lim

  • Judged by

    Ruth Curry

Dear Cyborgs

Manhattan Beach opens on a conversation between two gangsters on a private beach. Accompanying Dexter Styles and Ed Kerrigan are their daughters, Anna Kerrigan and Tabatha Styles. The men make some sort of arrangement while their daughters play (Anna, the brave one, wades into the ocean, flecked over with “skins of ice”). A few years later, Ed Kerrigan disappears. Five years after that, it’s 1942 and Anna Kerrigan, now 19 and supporting her mother and sister, works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, measuring tiny parts destined for battleships. On her lunch break one day Anna notices a group of divers in training: “There was something primally familiar about the diving suit—as if from a dream or a myth. … Jealousy and longing spasmed through her.” Just like that she’s caught, hook, line, and sinker (pun so intended), even though she’s never heard of diving or seen a diver before.

Ruth Curry is a writer whose work has appeared in Bookforum, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, Esquire, Nylon, and BuzzFeed. She is, with Emily Gould, the co-founder of Emily Books. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Of course, women aren’t permitted to become professional divers in the 1940s, and it’s only through wretched persistence and a few near-death experiences, plus the washout of nearly every man in her training class, that Anna is at last allowed on the crew. A chance encounter with Dexter Styles near the Navy Yard sets in motion another chain of events involving Anna’s sister (very unwell) and her father (still missing, assumed dead) that propel us to the book’s conclusion, which includes a birth, several deaths, a near-abortion, a shipwreck, a reunion, a separation, and of course a fated and illegal deep-sea diving expedition.

It will surprise no one the writing is near-flawless. “Quick knifelike walk” and “[his] face loosened like a cold roast warming over a flame” were a few lines that got the double-star treatment in my copy. Of Anna, we read:

Gradually she began to notice other solitary figures lingering in doorways and under awnings: people with no obvious place they needed to be. Through the plate-glass window of Grant’s at the corner of Sixth, she saw soldiers and sailors eating alone, even a girl or two. … The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now, she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish.

Beautiful, which makes the rare infelicities jarring. “Without the ballast of bunkmates, he felt unmoored” (because we’re reading a book about BOATS and the SEA, “WE GET IT,” reads my marginalia).

Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Guggenheim Fellow, multiple-time National Book Award nominee, etc., etc., etc., is one of the most celebrated writers working in English, and her work has always been noteworthy for its structural innovation, its exploration of the limits and luxuries of genre, and its lens onto psychological and emotional realism, which refracts and focuses both. Which is why it’s a disappointment to see Manhattan Beach commit fully to straightforward historical fiction, no matter how thoroughly researched and well-rendered it is. The guidelines for these reviews specifically ban sports metaphors but please let me keep this one: The reading experience is like watching Michael Jordan playing baseball—it’s fine, but like, why aren’t you playing basketball? Will they meet? Will she make it? What next? are compelling questions, and I read eagerly for the answers, but once the questions were settled, I felt like I’d finished dessert at a nice restaurant in an inconvenient neighborhood I had no desire to visit again.

Speaking of restaurants, much of Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim takes place in one or another: a Shanghainese restaurant near Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, an unnamed Thai restaurant in Diaspora City (which contains the neighborhoods Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst, etc.), a sushi restaurant in New York City, McDonald’s, other fast food restaurants. It is at restaurants where various individuals (aliens? comic book action heros? humans? some combination of all the above [hmm, cyborgs]?) meet to gossip, await instructions, talk about their dreams, and eat lunch.

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Dear Cyborgs opens, though, on the Primal Scene: two adolescent boys reading comic books in an empty suburban home in Middle America. This setup plus the use of “paroxysm” in the first three pages (“paroxysm” being a word so completely owned by Nabokov no other writer can or should use it; fight me) turned me against the task of reading the next 160 pages, but in a few more pages I was converted:

We were such outcasts that our isolation hardly pained us, as we could barely conceive of the alternative. … Almost everyone in this small town seemed to think this was for the best, but we did eventually find a group of others, those who had been shunned for their fatness or queerness or intelligence or non-Christian-ness, or some combination thereof—a familiar drama of Nerddom and xenophobia played out in small towns across the Midwest and South.

A familiar drama. (Tag urself. I’m “intelligence” w/ a dash of “queerness.”)

Vu and the narrator, never named, part ways around age 15 when the narrator moves with his family to Chicago, and here the familiar drama is succeeded by an unfamiliar one. The point of view switches, and will continue to do so with each chapter; we are now in the theater of restaurants, apartments, and coffeeshops, linked by long walks and peopled by the cyborgs/superheroes/fictional creations/humans mentioned above. While they’re walking and eating, the characters tell each other stories. Dear Cyborgs is a story about stories, aka my favorite kind of story, even the title a gesture to/invocation of the epistolary novel. The stories are about art, artmaking, capitalism, parasitism as resistance, and death (usually suicide). They are told third- or fourth-hand, or presented as dreams—Sebald comes to mind, but Lim is terse and caustic where Sebald is not: “It was a Hirst or something similar; i.e., vile, expensive bullshit.” The original narrator reappears and reunites with Vu; they collaborate on a comic featuring a character, who, perhaps, is the “author” of many of the stories we’re reading. It’s all exhilarating and a bit confusing, operating more in a realm of Twin Peaks-style emotional logic rather than a concrete textual one. I found this intriguing and easy to accept, though I also ended up making a working document of characters and their attributes/connections, not unlike a Dungeons & Dragons character creation worksheet, which is not how I typically read.

That’s the crux. Manhattan Beach was a “typical read”—nothing about it surprised me, it was moderately entertaining, and because it’s blind to the circumstances of our present reality, I’d recommend it to any of my Republican family members. Dear Cyborgs reminded me what literature can do, that a book can be a perfect little puzzle even if you can’t solve it, that a fictional world can float atop our physical one and, like the moment the optometrist clicks your prescription into the phoropter, snap it into sharp focus, showing us the flecks and flaws in the background as well as the dark, clear lines of the topmost letter E. Let’s call those lines the truth. The truth may be too bright or too painful to apprehend on the face of it (pace Emily Dickinson), but by telling it “slant,” stories can attune our vision to the horrors and wonders that surround us. It’s good to remember.

And many of the stories in Dear Cyborgs are horrible. Artists die young, or try to. Children are abandoned and families separated. The cracked-out static of loneliness and alienation hums under everything. Yet also running through is an examination of protest. What is it for? Does it benefit anyone but the protester, and if so, is that enough? Is it “real,” is it “worth it,” can it “mean anything,” what is the effect of protest under capitalism, is protest even possible if it has no cost, has protest occurred if the effect is anything less than the protester’s annihilation? This case is made, but also:

…protest can be a religious ritual too, one that needn’t be derisively looked down upon as magical thinking, but a spiritual act where the act itself is the goal. And that act may on some other level be co-opted, but in the subjective world of the protester it is a way, in itself, to be. … You can call it hokum if you wish, but for the protester, the protest makes a moral world in which she can abide.

Dear Cyborgs doesn’t abandon the question there, but we’re left with little in the way of closure at all, just another chance encounter and a final passage so haunting and chimerical I wanted to go back 163 pages and read the book again. So I did.

TODAY’S WINNER: Dear Cyborgs

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: Any time Jennifer Egan is working in fiction it is, for me, more like watching Michael Jordan at the United Center (as opposed to Birmingham’s Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, where he played minor league baseball during his mid-career sabbatical from the Bulls). Very few people write as well as she does, and to the extent that a straightforward piece of historical fiction might be a bit unexpected from Egan, it shows me she can do pretty much anything. This isn’t Egan on sabbatical: She researched the hell out of this novel.

I also have multiple personal connections to it—my mother was born and raised in Brooklyn and in the ’50s worked for a shipping company there, which is how she met my father, who was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So there was lots in this book for me to like.

One of the standards of measurement you and I have used over the years has been, “Which of these novels would you recommend most confidently to someone you don’t know?” Manhattan Beach would be one of the two in competition that would take that title for me. (We will talk about the other at a later date.)

John Warner: I had to look a second time to make sure that Manhattan Beach was Jennifer Egan’s first novel since A Visit From the Goon Squad, which Tournament devotees will remember won the 2011 Rooster in a nailbiter over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and indeed, it’s been seven years between books.

In that spirit, I will admit to a bit of disappointment that this is the result of that wait. As you note, as a writer, Egan is a sorcerer, but with Goon Squad, the trick was so fresh and surprising, each chapter (or story, depending on your point of view) a reinvention. I wondered what might come next.

I know nothing of the origins of Manhattan Beach, but maybe this is a conundrum Egan faced: how to follow up something new with something newer. Anyone who has read her catalog knows that—unlike Franzen post-Corrections, for example—Egan does not repeat herself, so I imagine the imagining and writing process employed in this work felt fresh and new.

But the Jordan analogy seems apt here. It’s a selfish feeling, just like I was hurt when MJ decided he needed time away from the game.

Kevin: Dear Cyborgs, though: pretty damn fun. I thank Judge Curry for doing a marvelous job of summing it up—I was struggling with how I was going to do that if forced to—and it really is exciting and original and thought-provoking. Despite being a short novel, I wasn’t always certain what was going on, to be honest, other than I was pretty sure some of the characters were creations of some of the other characters. And it was even more layered than that. We mostly get the comic book characters in scenes that would never appear in the panels of actual comic books. We catch them in their down time, where we don’t see what they do (doing being the main concern of comic books) so much as what they think and contemplate. And so, as Judge Curry suggests, Dear Cyborgs becomes an examination of storytelling. Where do we begin, and where do we end, and what do we include in between? The novel takes some stuff that might be included in one kind of story (The Idiot, for instance) and inserts it in another kind of story (say, comics of The Avengers), where that same stuff would ordinarily be stripped away. I found all of this fascinating, and if this seems like the kind of thing that would fascinate you, absolutely read this book.

John: I could not find purchase in Dear Cyborgs and washed out after about 25 pages, which I think is partly attributable to the nature of the story and its telling (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but also because I was limited to reading the book on the Kindle app on an iPad, which I hate and can only force myself to do under the most desperate circumstances.

Kevin: I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a novel I have read on a device. That can’t be a coincidence. I happily read nonfiction on my iPhone all the time, however. I have no good explanation for this.

John: I do not know how I became someone who can really only read physical books. I was even a Kindle early adopter, but over the years I’ve gotten so I almost can’t stomach trying to read something in a format other than hard copy. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time on the screen during the work day, or maybe there really is something to the physical object.

Kevin: Anyway, I got to see Michael Jordan play at United Center many times and I never tired of it. I’m not tired of Jennifer Egan either, and I would have advanced Manhattan Beach.

John: And let’s not forget following his baseball sabbatical, Jordan won three more titles. I’ll read any book Jennifer Egan writes and I too would’ve advanced Manhattan Beach.

Kevin: But Judge Curry found Dear Cyborgs more relevant for our times, and it surprised and provoked her in ways Manhattan Beach didn’t. That is an excellent reason for a Rooster judge to advance it. Do you know how many times the Bulls lost at home during the 1995-96 season, John? Only twice. This is an upset on that scale. Go Cyborgs! (Also, yes, let it be known that we have used up all our sports metaphors for this year’s commentary.)

John: Our second huge upset of the opening round, all in the first week! Tomorrow The End of Eddy goes up against Lucky Boy with Caitlin Roper judging, who I understand is responsible for one of the best new things I’ve seen in a long time, the New York Times kids section. We’re out again as Julie Buntin, director of writing programs at Catapult and the author of Marlena, one of our Rooster Summer Reading Challenge books, takes over the commentary.

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